Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2010.
Fresh off his victory at the Tilth-sponsored Organic Cocktail Contest, Tini Big's Shane Sahr came in first place this Monday at the Second Annual Esquire/Woodford Reserve Manhattan Shake-Off against five other local competitors. As per the rules of the contest, Shane Sahr will soon go on to the national finals to crown the year's "Master of the Manhattan" in Smyrna, Delaware (wait, no -- Manhattan, New York).The event served its honored quaff in three distinct variations, the most traditional of them being the Esquire Manhattan. Served with two ounces of Woodford Reserve, one ounce of red vermouth and a half ounce of Fernet Branca, the drink smacked of rich tradition and the vermouth's stinging back end. The bar staff hurried as best they could to mass produce these three cocktails for a pretty large crowd, but it's hard to nail such a delicate mixture so many times in one night and drinks often made it out a little too strong.
The event was held in the Palace Ballroom so there were plenty of delicious Tom Douglas offerings to pair with the drink of the night. Chocolate, maple and (because it's 2010 and we can't have anything nice without it anymore) bacon were the main themes of a healthy spread, including a heavenly milkshake that made me regret dropping party shots into slushees all my life like a fool.
Judging the event were Ted Lawrence of the Culinary Institute of America; Jamie Bourdeau, Seattle bartender superstar and host of webshow Raising the Bar; and the master distiller of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Chris Morris.
Morris said that a making a solid bourbon cocktail takes talent and creativity. Any person off the street can walk behind a bar and pour a shot of cherry vodka into a can of Coke, but a real bartender -- a bartender who considers themselves a professional -- will take pleasure in working to accentuate the nuances of a complicated liquor like bourbon.
While Morris loves what the Internet revolution has done for more or less levelling the playing field when it comes to knowing how to mix a proper drink, he stresses the importance of diligent research. He says that it's important to know not only the ingredients of a cocktail, but its story.
With drinks as popular as the Manhattan, you can have dozens of different recipes from dozens of different sources. For example: a Manhattan out of Jerry Thomas's 1887 bartender's guide and a Manhattan out of the Playboy Bartender's Guide are both going to be great drinks -- but they're by no means identical. Learning the origin of a concoction that has almost two centuries worth of history is the best way to improve your own mixing technique and create your own spin without looking like a spaz.
The Shake-Off's competition was nothing to scoff at, although it was a bit disheartening to see that craft heavies like Tavern Law, Vessel, and Zig Zag weren't represented. Candidates were chosen via recipe submissions online, so the focus was definitely more on finding a solid product than a solid producer.
The only hard and fast rule I was made aware of was that all Manhattans must feature Woodford Reserve bourbon. The official judging criteria came down to a breakdown between the drink's name (really?), overall creativity, rationale behind ingredients, presentation and taste. However, when asked about the ideal Manhattan, Chris Morris claimed he was looking for a simple mixture that showcased the bourbon above all else, as well as how well any substitutions for good, old-fashioned vermouth.
Representing Daniel's Broiler was Brad Miller with an Applewood Manhattan that blended Tawny port and an apple cider reduction syrup. He said that the drink was inspired by a cognac cocktail named The Waltz, most likely solidifying the Applewood as the crown "fancy-pants" entry.
Crow's Brian Mura brought along the Queen Anne Manhattan; Navan vanilla liqueur and Fee Brothers orange bitters was probably the least flashy of the entrants, but also sounded like one of the sweetest.
Casey Robison of Barrio crafted the Manhattan in Autumn, an intriguing recipe that read like something an alchemist would drink: dashes of Angostura and Ragan's Bitters as well as two drops of St. Elizabeth's allspice dram supplemented a mixture of bourbon, Punt e Mes and Fernet Branca.
Matt Johnson, co-owner of West Seattle's Feedback Lounge, made the Italiano Manhattan. The Italiano featured cinnamon-infused Tuaca, 2 dashes of angostura, three cloves, a bourbon-infused cherry and the white wine-based appertif Cocchi Aperitivo Americano. It was ambitious, and it took quite a long time to make. As much as it sounded like a perfectly amazing cocktail, its resemblance to a Manhattan was pretty liberal.
Finally, Shane Sahr's winning cocktail combined his own oregon berry-infused cognac, Dolin dry vermouth, 3 dashes of Ragan's Orange bitters and three brandied cherries. It was a great compromise of a classic recipe, innovation and elbow grease that seemed to instantaneously command the judges' attention.
When asked about his secret, Sahr told cocktail-crafters to have fun above all else. You never know who you're going to serve and you can't be sure of what they're going to ask for, so a flexible, curious attitude is your best tool. He invited any Whiskey Wednesday readers to come to Tini Big's for one of the bar's monthly "Sunday School" mixology classes -- an extremely enticing idea now that he's proven he has to be doing something right.
There was something strange about a roomful of people salivating over mostly silent bartenders who went about fixing drinks they weren't allowed to try. That's not to say Woodford Reserve and Esquire were wrong in not trying to let the audience in on the judging, as it'd be damn near impossible to rally enough of these homemade infusions and reductions for the crowd present. Furthermore, the slight drop in quality present in the three relatively simple cocktails wouldn't have served more intricate presentations any better. The only way to sate any curiosity these craft Manhattans might've aroused is to check out their respective bars -- a task of which Whiskey Wednesday is more than ready.